Challenging Anti-Blackness in South Asia

Across the USA on Saturday, police responded to protests over George Floyd’s murder with excessive force. We witnessed police SUVs ramming into peaceful protesters, rubber bullets aimed at tv news stations on the scene, brute force of tear gas and pepper spray used. 

The protests began in Minnesota, last week, to end police brutality against black folx in response to a video showing a white Minneapolis police officer killing Floyd, an unarmed black man. The protests have erupted globally calling for an end to police brutality, a police state, and an end to institutionalised racism. 

As a South Asian media platform, we feel it is our utmost priority to disseminate information on how we can tackle anti-blackness within our own communities. But unlearning racism starts with educating ourselves. This article outlines ways in which South Asians are perpetuating racism against black people, followed by discourse on how to engage with your loved ones to have those much-needed uncomfortable conversations to bring about a better future for all.

Colonialism

First, we must recognise the ideological cancers we inherited from colonial powers. This notion of socio-economic, mental and spiritual superiority of whites was invented by Europeans to justify colonialism and as a means of maintaining control. The British empire advocated for Social Darwinism, a “pseudo-scientific” concept that claimed an association of Eurocentric features with intelligence. The British used this to justify their treatment of South Asians by alienating South Asians into thinking their morals were incorrect and inferior. The implication here was that any race other than white were savage dimwitted minds that needed strong intelligent leaders from Britain.

Measuring land for cultivation, Allahabad, India, 1877. © Global Look Press / Science Museum

The British Empire were renowned for using “divide and conquer” throughout their legacy. In  South Asia, they pitted lighter-skinned, higher-caste South Asians against darker-skinned or lower-caste ones. The light skinned castes were given certain societal and economic privileges, which bred hatred and drove tensions between South Asians. Through this, colourism and internalised racism was borne. With the help of the Hindu-caste system, colourism has become embedded into South Asian culture and is still rife today. Caste discrimination is rooted in anti-blackness as associations are made between black skin and negative traits (criminal, uncivil) and then projected onto dark skinned or low caste South Asians.

If we are to advocate for decolonising history and unlearning racism, then we must also stand with black people when their human rights are under attack. Black people have been the makers of the modern world – through their labour, their resistance, their demands, as they continue to do. The Dalit Panther movement in India was even inspired by the bravery of the Black Panthers. We must honour the agency and leadership of African Americans. 

The Dalit Panther movement in India: note the image of B.R. Ambedkar, an Indian economist, politician and social reformer who inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and campaigned against social discrimination towards the untouchables.

When Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and diplomat, wrote Inglorious Empire, on the effects of British colonialism on India, there was an outpour of support for his work and many began to question the British Empire and demand for the Kohi Noor to be handed back. 

However to destroy anti-blackness we need to stop celebrating racist “saints”. Gandhi, the father of India, was inherently racist. He believed in the Aryan brotherhood. This involved whites and Indians higher up than Africans on the civilised scale. To the extent that he wrote Africans out of history or was keen to join with whites in their subjugation. Many South Africans accuse Gandhi of working with the British colonial government to promote racial segregation. To have this man’s birthday as a national holiday, this man’s face on India’s currency, have his portraits hanging in government offices; only manifests itself into the structural racism we witness.

Mohandas Gandhi pictured during his time in South Africa, 1893 – 1914

Colourism

Recognise how colourism and internalised racism seeps into your own dating preferences. These anti-black sentiments are deeply rooted in casteism and colonialism but are further propagated by Bollywood and the beauty industry. Bollywood and other South Asian film industries rarely consider dark-skinned actors. In Kollywood, we have even seen films feature a white woman from Liverpool in place of a Tamil woman. The commercialisation of light skin only further drives the narrative for internalised racism and further aids billion-dollar corporations, such as Fair & Lovely, who benefit from this self-hatred. The message these adverts often drill into us is one that associates achieving dreams with lightening skin.

Model Minority

The myth of the Model Minority created by the white establishment to perpetuate a false system of class and meritocracy – “If they can do it, so can you!” It is the notion that Asian Americans achieve universal and unparalleled academic and occupational success. Asian American studies scholars have long noted that the myth has been used strategically by opponents of equal opportunity policies and programs to support the notion of meritocracy with evidence that racial discrimination does not exist or impede the educational and occupational progress of racial/ethnic minorities. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Bill of 1965.
Corbis/Getty Images

The immigration act of 1965 only allowed South Asians with very high education levels or special skills into the US. This is used to draw illogical comparisons, omitting the legacy of African American slavery and systemic oppression to negate responsibility. Because of this, we were predetermined to be successful, painting us to be “good, hard-working model citizens”, “the opposite of black people”. White America purposefully gave South Asians partial access to better socio-economic white privilege to further drive tensions between POC.

Optical Allyship and Performative Activism

One of the main arenas that the fight for black lives and dignity has played out has been on social media. With much of the world still sequestered inside due to coronavirus, the barrage of confronting imagery on social media can be on both incredibly anger-inducing and also paralysing. Unfortunately, because of the immediate nature of social media, people’s well-intentioned instinctive desire to express support can sometimes go awry. An instance of this was #BlackOutTuesday. Whilst it was well-intentioned, this media campaign was hugely counterproductive. It drowned out vital information under the BLM hashtag. Moreover, there were 28.4 million #BlackOutTuesday posts but less than 28.4 million signatories on every single petition? If every one of those people donated just £1, BLM would have £28.4 million. This was an example of performative activism or optical allyship.

“Optical Allyship” is a term coined by Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow and author of Own Your Glow. In an Instagram post from May 1, Thomas defines optical allyship as “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the “ally”, it makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress.” Essentially, it is performative allyship. Instead of standing up, building trust, and doing the groundwork to disassemble white supremacy, optical allyship does the bare minimum. If you want to be a true ally, then continue to share anti-racism resources, places to donate, and petitions to sign.

Dialogue

Begin by getting rid of your eurocentric beauty standards and internalised racism. Stop demonising dark skin. For the love of all things holy, stop using the N word! It carries the weight of years of oppression and bloodshed. It is not ours to use. Black culture is not a costume. You can appreciate a culture by not taking it as your own. If you can appreciate the culture, then stand up for its people too. 

Whilst writing this, I realise, the people who need the message the most aren’t watching your instagram story. We are asking you to lovingly challenge and educate your loved ones; empower them to confront their Black prejudices. 

Black Lives Matter Protests: Thousands marched across the Golden Gate bridge to fight against police brutality, May 2020

Getting South Asians to understand the importance of dismantling the systems of white supremacy is not easy. Especially when we see Indians filling up stadiums across the globe in support of a Hindu nationalist leader. To undo anti-blackness within our communities, we must explain how white supremacy and racism are devastating all people of color including South Asians. We must acknowledge that the complete liberation of Black communities leads to the freedom of all people. We must reinforce that when we perpetuate anti-Blackness, that we are being complicit ourselves in reinforcing systems of oppression that harm our own people too.

We cannot comfortably sit under the blanket of BAME without examining our community’s contribution to anti-blackness. We have a lot to unlearn, and answer for.